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Risk to workers

The Australian Construction Industry is under fire again due to a recent spate of serious falls on Victorian work sites – 11 since the beginning of January. WorkSafe is taking a zero tolerance for sites which do not take the risk of falls seriously.

The majority of incidents occurred on residential construction sites and involved falls through open stair voids, from or through roof trusses or battens, from frames, or from scaffolding and ladders.

This post uses fall risks as an example of failure in workplace health and safety training (WHS) to move more broadly into a discussion about costs, benefits and the business case for WHS interventions to continually improve safety performance.

WHS Interventions Expense or Profitable Investment?
Investment in WHS systems, practices and workplace health and safety training makes sound business sense. This argument is widely made by governments, practitioners and consultants in the field and academic literature. Investing in WHS can result in improved business performance and profitability by:


  • Work Cover premiums;
  • Presenteeism (sickness on-the-job);
  • Costs associated with workplace accidents and fatalities;
  • Costs associated with return-to-work processes; and
  • Labour costs associated with absenteeism and turnover.


  • Employee productivity as a result of improved morale, motivation, commitment and/or engagement;
  • Work process efficiencies;
  • Risk management processes;
  • Protection of intangible firm assets, e.g. brand image and customer loyalty; and
  • Business reputation.

In the past, WHS interventions have been viewed as an expense required to avoid penalties and to meet compliance. Managers have been known to overestimate the costs associated with the implementation of WHS interventions and undervalue the costs associated with WHS failure. However, there is evidence of change with WHS intervention expenses moving to representing a productive or profitable investment.

The Impact of Safety Performance On Your Brand
Investments in better WHS systems should align with the strategic level concerns for the business. Consumers and the wider community show an increasing willingness to punish businesses that are not socially responsible.

When assessing WHS interventions, business is turning to a ‘balanced scorecard’ approach moving from a narrow economic focus of cost-benefit analysis to adopting a future-focused perspective. A cost-benefit analysis approach is inherently backwards-looking because it measures the outcomes of past actions.

The over-reliance on financial measures encourages short-termism. There is evidence that links better business performance outcomes to WHS interventions, including high productivity, lower costs, innovation and continuous improvement, and higher profitability.

There is also evidence relating to the consequences of WHS performance for intangible business assets including brand equity, consumer sentiment and reputation. Poor WHS practices lead to the competitive disadvantage, reduced status by stakeholders and reputational losses.

Management Commitment is the Strongest Predictor of Workplace Injury
Managers and supervisors set the pace and shape employee perceptions of risk and their behaviours. The strongest predictor of occupational injuries is management commitment to safety. So how does this play out on the construction site that is under pressure to build at an ever-increasing rate?

Using the example of fall risk mitigation to highlight what employers are required to do, we note that they should:

• Eliminate the risk by doing all or some of the work on the ground or from a solid construction; and
• Reduce the remaining risk by using fall prevention devices like scaffolds, perimeter screens, guardrails, elevated work platforms or safety mesh. Travel-restraint systems, industrial rope-access systems, catch platforms and fall arrest harness systems can also be used to reduce the risk of falls.

However, when faced with production pressures and threats of dismissal, employees are willing to forgo safety in order to meet production targets. Safe Work Australia report that 60% of workers accept risk-taking if the work schedule is tight. One-quarter of construction workers indicate that they receive no workplace health and safety training around workplace risk. Anecdotally, unsafe work practices abound and are only curtailed when an Inspector arrives on site. WorkSafe Victoria‘s Head of Hazardous Industries and Industry Practice, Michael Coffey remarked:

“Any of the 11 incidents so far this year could have ended tragically, and what is frustrating for WorkSafe Inspectors is that they see similar incidents over and over again. The control measures to reduce the risk of falls are well known and readily available so there is no excuse for not having them in place.”

Let’s Be Proactive!
WorkSafe is demanding businesses step up to improve their work health and safety performance. Heavy penalties including fines and gaol terms are in place for those proved to be in breach. As Michael Coffey says:

“Our Inspectors have zero tolerance for sites which do not take the risk of falls seriously”.

Research shows that where workers develop a stronger sense of the risks associated with their job, they are more likely to lead to better safety behaviours that lead to lower rates of injury. Member Associations like the Master Builders Association of Western Australia is answering the call. They have recently worked with Tap into Safety to develop two workplace health and safety training modules that specifically focus on fall risks in residential and commercial construction sites.


Dr. Susanne Bahn, Director and CEO, Tap into Safety

With over 11 years’ consultancy and 9 years’ research including more than 50 published journal articles, Sue knows her way around safety in hazardous workplaces. Her specific expertise focuses on induction deafness, risk blindness and risk management. A passionate individual, Sue is on a mission to lift the safety standard across Australia and internationally. Her qualifications include a PhD (Business – Health and Safety Management), a Masters in Human Resource Management, a Bachelor of Education and a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education. In July 2017 Sue was appointed as a panel member of the Reserve Bank of Australia’s Small Business Finance Advisory Panel. This appointment is an exciting opportunity to provide the Bank with valuable information on the financial and economic conditions faced by small businesses throughout Australia.

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Originally published on Tap into Safety

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